By Graham Duncan and Taryn Cooksey
One hundred and fifty years ago, delegates met in Charleston, South Carolina, to begin the process of drafting a new state constitution. In the nearly three years since the end of the Civil War, South Carolina Democrats had made every effort to maintain the political and social systems that protected white supremacy. The 1868 Constitutional Convention marked a turning point for the state, in which freed slaves and black men were able to establish some semblance of equality under the law.
The first phase of Reconstruction in South Carolina, was largely an effort by state elites to preserve the status quo of the antebellum period. On 30 June 1865, President Andrew Johnson appointed Benjamin Franklin Perry as provisional governor of South Carolina, and within three months, delegates assembled in Columbia to hold a constitutional convention. The delegates present were mostly the same men who had been among South Carolina’s pre-war elite, and they tried keep the state’s black majority from gaining any power or authority. Readmission into the federal government required southern states to repeal their articles of secession and accept the emancipation of enslaved people. The delegates begrudgingly agreed to these provisions, so that their constitution could get presidential approval. Under the leadership of newly elected governor James L. Orr, the South Carolina General Assembly quickly set to work crafting laws that ensured the antebellum power structures remained intact. Lawmakers passed a series of regulations dubbed “The Black Codes,” which barred black South Carolinians from any real political or economic security. Under the new laws, black citizens had only nominal rights to own property, sue others, and make contracts. Any legal authority granted by these initial laws was immediately undermined by the subsequent regulations: black people could only travel during certain times of day, could not own weapons, and were only allowed access to specially designated black courts. Hefty fees blocked them from engaging in trade or establishing businesses, while labor contracts often forbade black laborers from leaving the land of their employers. Furthermore, the government condoned the mobs and paramilitary groups that patrolled local communities and reinforced white supremacy through terror and violence.
After President Johnson’s refusal to impose stricter regulations and southern states’ refusal to ratify the Fourteenth Amendment, Republicans on the national level implemented new requirements that set the stage for 1868. Under the Reconstruction Acts of March 1867, congress eradicated the state governments of the seceded states and declared martial law. North and South Carolina formed the Second Military District, under the authority of General David E. Sickles. South Carolina would only be readmitted to the Union once the following steps were completed: extend the vote to all male citizens, have those citizens elect delegates to a new constitutional convention, submit the resulting constitution for voter approval, ratify the Fourteenth Amendment, and disband all military organizations.
Democrats found one loophole they hoped to use to their advantage. The convention could only take place if a majority of all registered voters voted in favor of it. A refusal to vote was counted the same as a vote against the convention. In an effort to stall a convention, politicians urged whites to register and then boycott the November election. Despite their efforts, a high turnout from black voters provided the majority needed to make the new convention happen. Because many white voters had simply refused to vote, they lost their opportunity to vote for any individual delegates. The result was a delegation who largely supported Reconstruction era reforms. Of the 124 delegates, seventy-three were black; among the fifty-one white delegates the majority were Republicans and fifteen were northerners who had relocated to the state.
The delegates met on 14 January 1868 and spent the next fifty-three days debating and drafting the state constitution. Though eventual political successes by white supremacists would undermine many of the delegates’ accomplishments, this convention remains a key point in South Carolina history. For the first time, black South Carolinians were able to participate in the legislative process. Men who had been enslaved only years earlier, voted for representatives who then assembled to draft a constitution that they hoped would better protect all citizens under the law.
In commemoration of the 150th anniversary of this momentous occasion, The South Caroliniana Library invites you to follow along with our special 1868 Constitutional Convention live-tweet event. Beginning on January 14th, we will provide daily updates on the proceedings, the key players, and notable debates. Please follow us on Twitter (@UofSCaroliniana) or follow our hashtag #1868Convention.